It’s hard to be unbiased about this film. My Colombian parents learned a lot of their English by watching Sesame Street. They were always seeking to improve their pronunciation, therefore, when I was born we’d all sit and watch The Children’s Television Network together. My favorite character has always been Cookie Monster, but something about Big Bird always stood out. He pretty much asked all the questions we were burning to ask as kids. His comments would sometimes come out as funny or naive, but he knew what to ask. Oscar the Grouch was easily the coolest punk around. There’s no denying that.
There are two ways of looking at Danic Champoux’s innovative documentary Self(less) Portrait. On the one hand it is a unique, insightful window into the human soul and all its most secret thoughts and darkest of dreams. On the other hand it is an exploitative and voyeuristic account of the confessions of troubled and vulnerable people who are probably in need of counselling with greater validity than of a simple camera. It is unarguable that this film treads a fine line in teasing both sides of this delicate balance.
Self(less) Portrait operates within a simple, functional premise. From a virtually fixed camera position fifty people drawn from every facet of society and each exhibiting unique and interesting qualities are encouraged to bare their souls. Their stories vary from simple tales of affection to disturbing accounts of abuse and self loathing resulting in suicide attempts and depression. The one connecting and slightly tragically hopeful connection between them all is love, or at least each person’s perception of this elusive emotion. Every person documented has either a personal and intimate story of love or are clearly giving the impression they are in search of or in desperate need of it. For some this is as simple as black and white; when you fall in love, well, you fall in love. Others have slightly more convoluted versions to tell but each relates back to this constant in some way.
As a society, we have a tenuous relationship with mental illness. With all of our complexities, it has been a fixture and spot of confusion in the lives of humans for as long as we have existed. There is a fear associated with these sicknesses, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the different. Our past ignorance had the sick being stored away in institutions, like badly behaved livestock meant to be forgotten rather than treated. There has been a change in society’s consciousness toward mental illness, but to call it advanced is decidedly inaccurate. It remains an unwieldy creature that beguiles the understanding of most. Out of Mind, Out of Sight paints a picture of the current state of mental institutions, although it doesn’t add all that much to the conversation.
What do you get when you take a slightly amusing premise, attractive and talented stars, poor timing, unfunny jokes and broad comedy? The Other Woman is what you get. Director Nick Cassavetes (son of legendary indie writer/director John Cassavetes and equally legendary actress Gina Rowlands) has fashioned a film that sets the bar so low it’s nearly on the ground and still manages to sneak under it.
In the beginning, we follow a budding romance between Carly (Cameron Diaz) and Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones fame). They’ve been together eight weeks and she’s quite smitten with him. So much so that her secretary/assistant Lydia (Nicki Minaj) is impressed that Carly refers to him by name and not a generalized nickname and Carly agrees to have Mark meet her father Frank (Don Johnson, who it’s nice to see out and about, even if it is in this movie.). Mark comes up with an excuse that a pipe burst in his Connecticut home and has to go wait for the plumber and misses the meet and greet with Frank. Carly decides to go to his house dressed as a sexy plumber but to her surprise, Kate (Leslie Mann) answers the door and tells her she’s his wife. After a tremendously unfunny display of prat falls and awkwardness, Carly walks away ungracefully on a broken heel.
So opens the poem by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin that plays a central role in Dutch director Jos Stelling’s period romance The Girl and Death. It’s verse quoted devoutly by the central character, a physician passing through Germany who begins a dogged years-long love affair with a young tuberculosis sufferer he meets there—a doomed affair not unlike that between Pushkin and the woman to whom his poem was dedicated. If the link serves to lend literary weight to the movie’s romance, though, it’s all the better at incidentally pointing toward the problems that pull it right back again.
Absences from acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker Carole Laganiere is a melancholy tale chronicling four unconnected individuals as they each reach a crucial point in their lives, and who have each been affected by an absent parent or sibling. Nathalie is searching for a sister who has been missing for several years; Ines is a Croatian immigrant travelling home to meet the mother who abandoned her as a small child. For Laganiere though, hers is rather poignant in that she is coming to terms with the imminent absence of a mother who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and who struggles daily to maintain a hold on reality.
The difficulty with this film is in its personal connection with the audience. How much the subject matter and the tragic tales within affect you as a viewer will more than likely be directly related to your own life experiences and whether you have encountered any of the issues raised. The stories are distinctly personal and obviously hugely relevant to the people involved but they may perhaps not resonate with a general audience. There are moments of genuine emotion but these are few and far between and you find yourself asking more questions than there are answers provided. When the daughter finally meets the mother who left her, her father and her brother for another man without a word of goodbye there is little in the way of recriminations. This comes across as unrealistic, incredibly forgiving or just edited.
Though using elements of cinéma vérité, Divide in Concord is primarily a performative-mode documentary which follows the actions and reactions of those involved, particularly Jean Hill who instigated the events. What Jean actively involves herself in? Passing a bill which bans the sale of single serve water in plastic bottles throughout Concord, Massachusetts. Kaczor and Regos follow Jean’s activities as she prepares for her third Town Meeting, a meeting which will decide once and for all whether Jean will succeed or not. The documentary is as much a biography about Jean Hill, an 84 year old activist determined to make a difference, as it is a document about the actual passing of the first American bill to ban the sale of single serve water in plastic bottles.
The main problem with the documentary is that it continually attempts to negate the involvement of the documentary itself. As a performative documentary which follows and thus necessarily involves itself in the events—as opposed to an expository documentary which examines the events after the fact—Kaczor and Regos ought to consider how the documenting itself affects the outcome of the events. The documentary’s involvement in Jean Hill’s activity should itself be of central importance; instead, the involvement of the filmmaking is negated as if it doesn’t impact the course of events at all. This negation of artifice is acceptable in narrative filmmaking, but the documentary mode of fimmaking demands auto-acknowledgement of the filmmaking process itself. That this is missing from Divide in Concord is of great concern, as the documentary thus appears highly manipulative and leading.
As a fan, I am always wary of documentaries or books dealing with professional wrestling. I don’t want to know about what happens behind the scenes, or how things are set up. I’d rather keep my views of past hero battles as glorious as when I first saw them on the small screen. Yet in learning about wrestling one gets exposed to wrestling terminology and with it the words “heat, the shoot, the sell, the work,” become part of your vernacular and the eventual realization to the fakeness of the sport. First there’s denial, then there’s acceptance. Thus, it takes the right kind of storytelling to muster up something compelling to fans and non-fans alike about a world that can be so foreign and so loved in its workings.
The only imaginable obstacle to Hal-9000 passing the Turing Test, in which a human interviewer attempts to distinguish an artificial intelligence, is his chirpy honesty obliging him to inform his interlocutor. “I’m afraid,” he says as he’s disabled toward the end of Kubrick’s film, a line aped by the eponym of The Machine—an android AI named Ava—in the new movie’s closing act. That it is no 2001 is no surprise; that it can borrow its ideas and build upon them in its own, intriguing way is a nice one.
It takes no exceptional insight into the ways of the world today to realise the reason behind the boom in violently-inclined what-would-you-do-for-money thrillers of late. From the well-liked ilk of Cheap Thrills to the far-less feted likes of The Brass Teapot, American cinema especially has taken fiscal desperation to entertainingly exploitative new ends. Enter 13 Sins, a loose reworking of the 2006 Thai film 13 Beloved that’s at once a remake smartly shifted to a specific new context and a source material misreading that evidences the worst of Hollywood’s tendency to maintain the image of its repurposed properties while losing the essence. If it looks like a good movie, and sounds like a good movie, sometimes it’s best to go watch that good movie instead.